An epidemic similar to that of "crack babies" in the early 90s may be resurfacing, with the number of infants being born addicted to prescription painkillers increasing fivefold since 2000.
According to a new study released Monday, babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome—exposure to addictive drugs while in the mother's womb—are increasingly addicted to Oxycodone, Vicodin, Heroin or opiates and can suffer from seizures, breathing problems, difficulty feeding and inconsolability, according to Stephen Patrick, a neonatal-perinatal medicine fellow at the University of Michigan and lead author of the report.
"Opiate painkillers are the new epidemic," he says. "It's becoming a problem. We need to increase attention from a public health perspective and talk about how we deal with opiates and the way they're prescribed."
The addiction is rarely if ever fatal, but treatment of the 13,000 "Oxy Babies" born addicted to painkillers in 2009 cost more than $720 million. About 80 percent of affected infants were on Medicaid, according to Patrick's report.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that the death toll from overdoses of prescription painkillers has tripled over the past several years. About 12 million Americans—about 1 in 20 teenagers and adults—use prescription painkillers in a way that's not prescribed.
Patrick says that while some infants can go cold turkey, most are weaned off the drugs over the course of a few weeks or months with controlled doses of morphine or methadone.
In an editorial accompanying the article, Marie Hayes and Mark Brown, of the University of Maine, write that the prevalence of painkiller-addicted babies has "created a health care encumbrance primarily for state Medicaid budgets."
"Without accessible treatment of both maternal opiate addiction and new ways of treating NAS, state and federal systems may pay in the future because many of these infants require special services for developmental and behavioral disorders," they continued.
Although many of the mothers of infants with neonatal abstinence syndrome abuse painkillers, Patrick says that even with prescribed usage, an infant can be born with a dependency on prescription pills.
"This is a diverse group of people. There are people that are in drug treatment programs on methadone, people that have been taking them that weren't prescribed them, and responsible users," he says. "But stopping opiates in the middle of pregnancy can also be dangerous, the mom and fetus can both have withdrawal symptoms."
Patrick says the study underscores the need for stricter painkiller regulations. Many abusers will go "doctor shopping" and get prescribed the same painkillers from multiple doctors or buy them on the black market.
"The thing that's really important is curbing the overall opiate use when possible," he says.
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.